It’s fair to say that the airport experience has taken a turn for the worse over the past couple of years. From confusing Covid admin at check-in to nightmarish queues and an upswing in last-minute flight cancellations, it seems there’s little glamour in flying these days.
Still, some airports manage to make the experience a bit more bearable with decent restaurants, free Wi-Fi and water refill points. Of paramount importance to most passengers is whether they’ll be saddled with delays, or – even worse – holiday-threatening cancellations.
So which are Britain’s best and worst airports, when all the factors are taken into account?
We selected 16 categories with which to rank the UK’s 16 busiest airports. From quizzing our readers on Twitter to assessing how aesthetically pleasing each terminal is, to gathering data on delays and destinations served, we have drawn up your guide on where best to fly from this summer.
The winner: London City Airport
Often thought of as the preserve of business travellers, little London City has quietly been building a reputation among frequent flyers as the chicest choice for holiday travel. While it can’t compete with London’s ‘big four’ in terms of number of routes served, its 40 destinations go far beyond the classic financial capitals and include the likes of Florence, the Balearics and various Greek islands. In our survey it gained points for its proximity to the centre of London (and the cost of the journey to get there) plus perks like free unlimited Wi-Fi and mobile phone charging points – an impressive 1,771 seats have power outlets. Crucially, 89.1 per cent of its flights arrived on time last year while the average delay was only five minutes. The airport also likes to boast that arrivals can be onboard the DLR in as little as 20 minutes after touchdown, though of course experiences may vary.
On a straw poll of the Telegraph Travel desk, London’s second airport divided opinion like no other, having both its committed fans and determined detractors. In the rankings, it scored highly for the number of destinations served (192), the number of four-star hotels within a two-mile distance and a lack of flight cancellations, but was punished for the high price of the Gatwick Express and low number of restaurants per million passengers. However, it should be noted that it has more diverse food outlets than most, offering everything from sushi to Shake Shack and a perfectly serviceable brasserie in addition to the obligatory Wetherspoons. One factor to remember for those who like to linger in duty free – Telegraph Travel’s Chief Consumer and Culture Editor Nick Trend highlights that Gatwick has “some of the longest walks to the departure gate known to man.”
Tied for third: Heathrow and Newcastle
In joint third place are Europe’s busiest airport and a regional hub a fraction of its size. Heathrow won the aesthetics competition, drawing praise for the superb Richard Rogers extravaganza that is Terminal 5. However, it was almost bottom of the pile for flight delays with only 80 per cent arriving on time in 2021. Still, with the Heathrow Express delivering passengers to Paddington in as little as 15 minutes, 19,000 parking spaces and a dizzying 223 destinations to choose from, there’s no doubt this behemoth remains the top choice for many.
Newcastle, meanwhile, offers the cheapest journey to the city it serves and has a more reasonable ‘kiss-and-drop’ charge than most at £4 for 10 minutes. Other plus points include a good ratio of food outlets to passengers and plenty of power outlets. Still, it was one of the few airports on our list which fails to offer water refill stations.
Bottom of the pile: Bristol and Leeds Bradford
Jointly clutching the wooden spoon in our competition are Bristol and Leeds Bradford airports. The former had few fans on our Twitter poll and levies a hefty terminal drop-off charge at £7. Recent reports of queue chaos at check-in and security suggest it might deserve its lowly ranking, though passengers at least have two hours of free Wi-Fi to entertain themselves with.
Up in Yorkshire, Leeds Bradford airport was branded “a random hotchpotch of ageing buildings” in the visual category and has no four-star hotels within two miles of the terminal. More importantly, it came bottom for cancellations, with 2.28 per cent of all flights axed last year, according to data from the CAA. However, it did perform fairly well in the delay rankings and has a generous 1,440 seats available in the terminal if you need somewhere to wait it out.
Best for flights on time
With an impressive 92.2 per cent of flights leaving on time in 2021 and an average delay of only five minutes, most passengers at Belfast International were treated to a rather seamless experience last year. At the other end of the scale, only 79.9 per cent of flights were on time at Luton in 2021.
Belfast International: 92.2 per cent
London City: 89.1
East Midlands: 87.5
Easiest to access
Anyone who has ostensibly flown to a European city on a budget airline only to find they have arrived at a small airfield two hours outside of the centre may put value on an airport's proximity to the city it serves. Birmingham tops this category with a speedy 12-minute journey to the city centre, while Glasgow and Manchester also performed well at 15 minutes. Stansted had the longest journey time – a hefty 47 minutes to Liverpool Street Station.
Birmingham: 12 mins to city centre
Manchester: 15 mins
Glasgow: 15 mins
London City: 21 mins
Heathrow: 21 mins
The people’s choice (according to Twitter)
Liverpool Airport ended up in mid-table obscurity in the overall rankings but it was the people’s winner in our Twitter poll, with one social media user declaring it “the best by miles”. The praise may be informed by its classy, glassy exterior or the striking Yellow Submarine sculpture – a tribute to the airport’s namesake John Lennon, who also has a statue inside.
Ryanair and EasyJet are the big players here, but Wizz Air has an increasingly large presence and new low-cost Icelandic carrier Play will be launching flights to Reykjavik later this year.
Best (and worst) of the rest
We wanted the winning airport to reflect the passenger experience, not simply how big it is. As such we ranked each airport according to:
Percentage of flights on time in 2021 (according to data from the CAA)
Average delay in minutes in 2021 (according to data from the CAA)
Percentage of flights that were cancelled in 2021 (according to data from the CAA)
Total destinations served
Distance to the centre of the city it serves (in terms of minutes, via the quickest available public transport route)
Cost of fastest route to city centre (public transport options only)
Whether it has free Wi-Fi access, and how long for
Number and quality of nearby hotels (within a two-mile radius, according to ratings on Booking.com)
Restaurants per million passengers
An aesthetics score (according to our consumer editor in-house airport aficionado Nick Trend)
How much its ‘kiss and drop charge’ is
Bonus points were issued to airports with:
Mobile charging facilities
Drinking water fountains/water bottle refill stations
A five-star hotel nearby (within a two-mile radius)
We also ran a Twitter poll where readers were able to vote on their favourite UK airports; see more at twitter.com/TelegraphTravel.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.